U.S., Other Nations Step Up Battle Against Corrupt Payments

A global crackdown on companies that use bribery to advance their foreign business interests is rapidly gathering steam.

Governments in the U.S. and other nations have dramatically increased their investigation and prosecution of foreign corruption cases in recent years, thanks to a spate of new anticorruption laws that has fostered growing international cooperation.

The effort logged another high-profile catch earlier this month with the conviction of former Halliburton Co. executive Albert J. “Jack” Stanley, who led a scheme to bribe Nigerian government officials to secure lucrative contracts related to the natural-gas business. Investigators in France, Switzerland, the U.K. and Nigeria are investigating the matter, according to Halliburton corporate filings.

The U.S. federal government had open investigations into 84 companies at the end of last year, up from three in 2002, according to Shearman & Sterling LLP, a law firm based in New York that tracks anticorruption cases. “In the 30-plus years I have followed these matters, there were long periods of little activity and few prosecutions in the early years. Recently there has been a dramatic increase in such activity,” says Danforth Newcomb, a partner at Shearman & Sterling.

Mark F. Mendelsohn, deputy chief of the U.S. Justice Department’s fraud section, says pursuing anticorruption cases has become “a significant priority in recent years.” Additional lawyers have been assigned to these cases and, a year ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation created a team to work on foreign bribery and antitrust cases, he says.

“U.S. companies that are paying bribes to foreign officials are undermining government institutions around the world,” he says. “It is a hugely destabilizing force.” The Justice Department declined to comment on the Stanley matter or any other specific cases.

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